2019: The Birth of a National Movement for Gas-Free Homes and Buildings

Future history books will likely describe 2019 as a watershed moment in the campaign for safer, healthier, and more affordable homes and buildings powered by clean energy. This was  when communities began to stand up to some of the most powerful industries in the country and say “No more explosions in our neighborhoods, no more poisoning of our children, no more climate destruction, no more gas.” This was the year when diverse networks of state, national, and regional groups came together to support those communities and center their narrative in the movement for climate protection. This was the year that states began to shift their goals and incentives for building and appliance efficiency -- from gas to clean energy. 2019 was the year the oil and gas industry had been dreading, the moment when their house of cards built on a costly, dangerous, and dirty business started to topple. 

Communities across the nation began winning ambitious policies to help families and businesses replace polluting fossil fuel appliances -- such as furnaces, water heaters, and stoves -- with advanced electric appliances that can be powered with clean energy, thereby reducing energy use, cutting climate and air pollution, and making communities safer. And the gas industry started pulling out all the old dirty tricks to stop them, because buildings are where it makes most of its money.  

Below we summarize and celebrate some of the hard-won victories from this remarkable year. 

Stopping industry from making the gas problem worse
Making our buildings more affordable, safer, healthier, and less destructive to our climate starts by not making our gas problem worse. Instead of locking new homes and businesses into decades of dirty energy, we need to stop connecting new buildings to an old, leaking, expensive gas system. Communities recognized that new construction should be clean, affordable, and safe: all-electric and super-efficient. They also recognized that proposals to invest any more money in that outdated gas system should be carefully evaluated with climate, safety, and air-quality goals in mind. 

  • A wave of cities have adopted local building codes to prevent the expansion of the gas system. In California, over 20 cities and counties have either prohibited new gas hookups for residential and commercial construction or strongly discouraged them. Local action has spread to Massachusetts, where Brookline adopted the first ban of fossil fuels for heating in both new construction and major renovations. Roughly 15 municipalities in Massachusetts are expected to follow Brookline’s lead in 2020. 

  • In Washington, D.C., The District of Columbia Public Service Commission rejected a proposal earlier this month from the gas company to extend a controversial gas hookup subsidy program, citing concerns about the likelihood of stranded asset costs from the district’s own consumer advocate. 

  • The California Public Utilities Commission unlocked $1 billion of energy-efficiency funding for utilities to create new electrification programs to help ratepayers get off gas and save energy. This decision puts to rest a nearly 30-year-old policy that effectively prohibited electrification from being considered an energy-savings measure. 

  • The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously rejected CenterPoint’s proposed “renewable natural gas” program, protecting ratepayers from costly false solutions to the climate crisis.

States decided that the future of buildings is clean electricity, not gas or oil
When state and local decision-makers recognize that meeting their climate-protection commitments requires clean buildings, they start by setting out building-decarbonization goals and heat-pump deployment targets. Those frameworks establish the basis for policy and market transformation, aligning utility, manufacturer, and workforce planning around a new paradigm. In 2019, the first half dozen states began to set out such goals and targets.

  • In California, the Energy Commission unanimously adopted an Integrated Energy Policy Report that identifies building electrification as “the most viable and predictable path to zero-emission buildings.” Since then, the Commission has begun a public proceeding to study how California will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. 

  • Proving that elections matter and electrification works in cold climates, Maine set out what may be the most ambitious electrification goal in the country when Governor Mills signed a bill targeting deployment of 100,000 heat pumps over the next five years. For context, Maine has just over half a million homes! Massachusetts started the transformation of its energy-efficiency efforts when the Department of Public Utilities approved the Commonwealth’s energy-efficiency programs for the next three years, including a target of deploying more than 60,000 heat pumps. Its energy-efficiency programs will be among the strongest in the nation. Rhode Island joined its fellow New England states in taking action, with Governor Raimondo issuing an executive order to start transforming the heating system. 

  • New York released an energy-efficiency white paper setting out a vision for dramatically reducing energy use from heating, including new programs to switch from gas, oil, and propane to clean electricity. Draft climate and energy plans in Maryland and New Jersey include recognition of the benefits and critical importance of building electrification. 

Making more homes more affordable with electrification
Those on the frontlines of the affordable housing crisis in this country, who have been the most burdened by dilapidated homes and delinquent landlords and who are threatened by eviction and utility shutoffs, must be first in line for the benefits of investment in cleaner buildings. Communities and advocacy groups have identified the need for new programs that lower the costs of electrical upgrades and equipment, new rates that support shifting from gas to electric for heating, inclusive financing, and pilots that are focused on low-income homes and environmental justice communities.

  • Recognizing both the opportunities for low-income communities to benefit from all-electric buildings and the risks of staying on the gas system, the Greenlining Institute and Energy Efficiency For All released the report Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities that provides guidance for decision-makers on how to engage frontline communities to design, adopt, and implement policies that prioritize and protect low-income households, especially renters. 

  • The city of Seattle adopted a heating oil tax that will generate more than $8 million in revenue to help deploy electric heat pumps to thousands of homes and end costly and polluting oil use for heating. The legislation prioritizes building electrification for low-income homes at zero cost.

  • California began the process to design and implement pilot programs to electrify 1,600 low-income homes in 11 communities across the San Joaquin Valley. These pilots will invest roughly $50 million in efficiency and electrification upgrades -- and move families from costly and polluting propane and wood heating to advanced electric appliances, leapfrogging over gas.  

Taking on the biggest existing polluters -- large buildings
Eliminating emissions from large existing residential and commercial buildings is an essential piece of the decarbonization roadmap. Policies that require efficiency improvements and emissions reductions are getting paired with rebates and financing to lower the cost to building owners, as well as job-quality standards to ensure that retrofits support a skilled workforce. Performance standards are quickly evolving. In 2020, we expect building performance standards will focus on directly reducing emissions, and not just energy use. 

  • The District of Columbia established the first requirements for improving the performance of large existing residential, commercial, and public buildings in the country, with Mayor Muriel Bowser signing the Clean Energy D.C. Omnibus Act on January 18. New York City signed the second building performance standard on April 22. These policies require large commercial buildings to improve their energy performance and reduce climate pollution over time, driving an opportunity for deep investment in clean, all-electric buildings. 

  • Months later, Washington State also adopted a strong building energy performance standard to reduce energy consumption in large commercial buildings. This and further action is direly needed, as emissions from buildings have increased more than 50% since 1990, making the sector the state’s fastest growing source of emissions. 

  • Philadelphia and Boston joined the chorus near the end of the year, as Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney signed legislation starting the process of creating a building performance standard and Boston mayor Marty Walsh released the city’s Climate Action Plan calling for a carbon emissions performance standard for large buildings. 

Planning for a prosperous, just, and equitable future without gas
Transitioning off fossil fuels in a manner that protects workers and ratepayers requires that policymakers, utilities, labor, and stakeholders begin planning now. Decision-makers are beginning to think through what a managed transition off gas looks like, and new models are quickly emerging to guide the way.

  • Groups in the District of Columbia have come together to ensure that their utility regulators hold the gas company accountable to their commitment to develop a business plan consistent with meeting the District’s 2050 climate goals. That plan may be the first in the nation, though advocates are also working to transform the country’s largest municipally owned gas company, up I-95 in Philadelphia

  • In California, regulators commissioned a report on the future of the gas distribution system, which finds that the state would save up to $20 billion per year by accelerating electrification, including by decommissioning entire sections of the gas system to lower system costs.  A new report by the University of California at Los Angeles finds that electrification will create over 100,000 jobs, even after accounting for losses in the fossil fuel industry. Job loss can be significantly mitigated by beginning the process of planning for the transition to zero-emission buildings with labor groups now. A third study, California’s Gas System in Transition: Equitable, Affordable, Decarbonized, and Smaller, by a diverse set of stakeholders, proposes a managed transition off gas to lower costs, prioritize equity, and achieve climate and air quality goals. 

While 2019 was a watershed year, 2020 will be even more important. The oil and gas industry is on notice, filing lawsuits, flooding the airwaves with ads, and trumpeting false solutions to stop this momentous progress. Continued success in the face of that mobilized opposition will require communities, advocates, and donors to accelerate their shared efforts and commitment to clean, safe, and healthy buildings without gas, oil, and propane. We can lock in the progress of 2019 and build a sustainable foundation for an affordable, prosperous, healthy, safe, and equitable future for all of our communities: clean, efficient, all-electric buildings. 

To learn more, and get involved locally, please sign up here.